This Pleasantly Spicy Vegan Indian Dish is Healthy and Frugal
Lentils don’t get much love. Which always surprises me, because they’re versatile, inexpensive, and highly tasty. Especially in dal — an Indian dish that can be made from dried lentils, peas, or beans (pulses). Dal is a typical side dish at Indian meals, usually served with rice or bread. And there are scores of different dal recipes — today’s post is just one example.
Because dal is high in protein (about 25% by weight, comparable to meat), it’s an important nutritional source in India, where over a third of the population are vegetarians. And since dried lentils and beans are relatively inexpensive and go a long way, dals are an exceptionally thrifty dish.
Bottom line? Healthy, chock full of flavor, and budget friendly. It’s (d)all good.
Recipe: Pink Dal with Swiss Chard
This dish uses pink (some people call them red) lentils — a salmon-colored pulse that turns a yellowish brown when cooked. But you can use any lentil you choose (see Notes for differences in cooking times).
I often serve this as a side dish, but it has enough flavor and nutrition that you can easily serve it as a main course. In that case, I’d add rice and maybe a salad just to make the meal a bit more interesting. Although this is a vegan dish, most Indians are not vegans — their diets contain several milk products, particularly cheese and yogurt.
I specify Swiss chard in this recipe, but you can use any dark green you like. Spinach, kale, mustard greens, collard greens — they all work (see Notes for cooking tips). Or you can leave out the greens entirely, and still have a delicious dal. In fact, I used to make this recipe without the greens — until one day when I was faced with an overabundance of Swiss chard from my garden.
Making this dish requires a bit more than 10 minutes of active prep time, plus another 35 to 40 minutes for cooking.
This recipe serves 8 as a side dish. Leftovers will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a few days (see Notes). They also freeze extremely well.
- 1¼ cup pink lentils (or another lentil of your choosing; see Notes)
- ~1 cup minced onion (about 1 large onion — add more if you like)
- ~1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger (a piece about 1 inch by 1½ inches, peeled)
- 3 - 5 medium cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 3 tablespoons neutral oil (I use canola oil)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 bunch Swiss chard or other dark green, washed and trimmed (a pound or a bit more)
- 2 teaspoons dried ground cumin
- 1 - 2 teaspoons dried ground coriander (I like coriander so I use more; but you may want to start off with less)
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste; I usually double)
- ½ teaspoon garam masala (or to taste; see Notes)
- Pick over lentils (to remove any foreign objects, like pebbles or dirt), then wash and drain. Set aside until Step 7.
- Peel and mince onion (size doesn’t greatly matter — I usually cut it into ½ inch dice).
Peel fresh ginger and mince. Ditto with the garlic. (I often whirl these in a mini food processor.)
- Heat 3- or 4-quart Dutch oven (or another pot with a heavy bottom that will be large enough to hold the lentils and about 4 cups of water) on medium heat. When hot, add oil. After the oil heats (it will shimmer), add onion, ginger, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper, and sauté until translucent (5 minutes, perhaps as many as 8).
- Meanwhile, wash Swiss chard, remove any stems that are woody, and chop into pieces about an inch square.
- When the onion is translucent, add the cumin, coriander, and red pepper flakes. Stir into the onion mixture and fry for 30 seconds. Then add the Swiss chard, stir, and cover Dutch oven with lid. Lower heat to medium-low, and cook for 5 minutes (you’re steaming and tenderizing the Swiss chard).
- At the 5-minute mark, add the pink lentils and 3 to 4 cups water (depending on how soupy you want your dal to be; you can add less up front, and more later if you wish). Salt to taste (½ teaspoon for me). Bring to a simmer, cover and simmer. You’ll simmer for about 30 minutes, but take a look at the pot after about 15 to see if you need to adjust the water level.
- When the dal is done (the lentils will be soft but still hold their shape), taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in the garam masala, remove from heat, and serve.
- Pink lentils can be found in many supermarkets (if you don’t see them with the packaged dried beans and lentils, look in the section where they sell bulk grains and other products — if your supermarket does that). They’re also available at any Indian market.
- Pink lentils have great flavor and are one of the fastest cooking lentils. But you can substitute any lentil. If you substitute common brown lentils (every supermarket carries these packaged in 1-pound bags), you’ll probably need to increase cooking time by 5 to 10 minutes.
- Swiss chard is actually very similar to the type of spinach grown in India, which is one reason it works so well in this dish.
- But if you don’t want to use Swiss chard, just substitute spinach (the type you find in the typical American supermarket). As noted above, you can also substitute another dark leafy green like kale or collards. These greens are tougher than Swiss chard (or spinach), however, so you may want to cook them another 5 minutes in Step 6 (this is optional; they’ll still be plenty tender by the time the dal is finished, but may have a bit of chew).
- Garam masala is a mixture of spices commonly used in Indian cooking, particularly in northern India. It’s aromatic but not spicy hot. The blend of spices differs from one maker to another, but it virtually always includes ground black pepper and cloves, and usually cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon. Most supermarkets carry it (all the major spice manufacturers offer it). If you can’t find it, substitute a couple pinches each of ground cloves, ground cinnamon, ground cumin, and black pepper.
- You should add the garam marsala at the end of cooking, right before serving. That’s because its main function is to impart an appealing aroma (although of course garam marsala does provide some flavor too). You’ll definitely notice the aroma as you bring a forkful of dal to your mouth. You can add more garam masala than I call for, but be careful — add too much and its flavor dominates the dish.
- If you refrigerate or freeze leftover dal, make sure you reheat it to at least 165 degrees F. Because lentils (and other pulses) are so nutritious, they make excellent breeding grounds for bacteria. But this is nothing to worry about as long as you reheat it properly.
- For the same reason, you want to refrigerate dal promptly when the meal is over.
- The word “dal” can be used for a cooked dish (the way I’m using it here) or as a generic term for the pulse from which the dish is made. Thus, both pink lentils and common brown lentils are called dals.
Indian Fortnight on Kitchen Riffs
This week and next we’ll be discussing some Indian dishes. In fact, we’ll be putting together an entire dinner menu (sans dessert — I find most Indian desserts too sweet). The dishes I’ll be offering are ones I think most people will like, and are all pretty straightforward to prepare. I’ve cooked and served all of them to company numerous times, and they have been well received.
Actually, I’m having trouble limiting the number of recipes to just two weeks’ worth! I could do months of Indian recipes — I love the many flavors and cuisines of India. So rest assured that this series won’t be the last Indian cooking on Kitchen Riffs.
Later this week, we’ll discuss Aromatic Yellow Rice, a terrific dish that pairs well with dal of all descriptions. It would be appropriate with any Indian meal, but it’s equally at home next to roast chicken or grilled fish.
Namaste. And see you next time.
You may also be interested in reading about:
Sweet Potatoes in Curry Sauce
Red-Braised Beans and Sweet Potatoes
White Bean and Potato Soup
Split Pea Soup with Greens
Vegan Mapo Tofu
Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans Easy Lentil Soup
Black-Eyed Peas and Collard Green Soup